Based on losses in the tens of millions dollars in 2020 and uncertainty about 2021, it’s reasonable to expect Reds ownership will insist on modest (at least) reductions in payroll. To be clear, many other Major League organizations will trim or slash payroll for the same reasons. That means the Reds front office will have to eliminate commitments to current players if it wants to do any new spending.
That can be accomplished by either non-tendering arbitration eligible players or by trading players under contract.
One position that seems ripe for a trade is established closer. The Reds have two on their roster. Raisel Iglesias has closed for the Reds since 2017. Archie Bradley, who came to the Reds in an August deadline deal, became a reliever for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017 and closed games in 2019 and 2020.
In comparing Iglesias and Bradley, let’s look at a few basics first. Iglesias is almost 31 years old, that’s 2.5 years older than Bradley. Both players are under Reds control for one more season. Each will become a free agent in 2022. Based on a deal covering his final three years of arbitration, Iglesias is under contract for $9.125 million in 2021. Bradley, who is entering his final year of arbitration, is projected to earn ~$5.7 million.
For a contending team in an ideal world, depth at the closer position would be desirable. But when an organization is looking to cut payroll, the second closer becomes a luxury item. In fact, the emergence of Lucas Sims in the back of the bullpen might make both Iglesias and Bradley expendable.
Strikeouts and Walks
Strikeouts and walks are two of the best indicators of pitching performance. I wrote in August:
Strikeouts reflect the pitcher’s dominance over the batter. Walks measure the pitcher’s command over the ball. Dominance and command may not present a complete description of the successful pitcher, but the two attributes go a long way.
Another virtue of evaluating pitchers by Strikeouts and Walks is those outcomes are under a high degree of control by the pitcher. They don’t depend on wide variance in defensive positioning, defensive skill, official scoring, park size, relievers, opponent lineup construction, random luck, etc.
Here are those numbers for Iglesias and Bradley. The first two columns represent strikeout and walk rates for 2020 and third and fourth columns show cumulative numbers back through 2017. The bottom row was MLB average for relievers.
Raisel Iglesias was an elite strikeout machine in 2020, ending up in the 93rd percentile of pitchers. He’s been well above average in strikeouts through his career as a closer, but 2020 was his best season yet. Bradley has been a bit better than league average in strikeouts since 2017, but his K% fell to right around average in 2020.
Iglesias also posted the best walk rate of his career in 2020. He’s been 1.5% better than league average since 2017. Bradley had an excellent walk rate in 2020. Out of 173 relievers, his walk rate was in the top ten. His career walk rate is about the same as Iglesias’.
xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) takes a pitcher’s strikeout, walk and fly ball rate (as a neutralized proxy for home runs) and converts them to a scale similar to the more familiar ERA statistic. The concept behind the value of xFIP is that it evaluates pitchers on outcomes over which they have most control. xwOBA (expected, weighted on base percentage) is another composite stat that accounts for quality of contact on batted balls the pitcher gave up, plus strikeouts and walks. It converts the result to the batting average scale for familiarity.
Iglesias had an excellent xFIP and xwOBA in 2020. In the former, he was 35% better than league average. In the latter, he was in the 96th percentile. Bradley was 18% better than average in 2020 and his xwOBA was in the 56th percentile. If you look at 2017-2020, the two pitchers are more similar in xFIP and xwOBA, both much better than league average, with roughly a 5% edge to Iglesias.
Both pitches throw a four-seam fastball. Bradley used it for 60% of his pitches in 2020. Iglesias threw his four-seamer 38% of the time. These graphs track the pitcher’s fastball velocity over seasons since 2017.
In 2017, both pitchers had an average fastball velocity around 96.7 mph. In 2018 and 2019, the velocity on Iglesias’ four-seamer fell by about one mph. He regained that velocity in 2020. Bradley lost about a mph in velocity in 2018 and 2019 as well, but the bottom fell out of his heater in 2020, dropping down to 94.4 mph.
The Reds are in an enviable situation when it comes to their pitching staff in general and the bullpen in specific. They have two established closers with reasonable contracts for 2021 and who don’t come with the risk of a long-term deal. In addition, they have several other quality pitchers who have experience relieving in Sims, Amir Garrett, Tejay Antone and Michael Lorenzen. Sal Romano, Jose de Leon, Robert Stephenson and a few minor league pitchers are also in the mix.
Raisel Iglesias would be a strong trade chip. In fact, our negativity bias notwithstanding, in 2020 Iglesias was one of the best relievers in the big leagues, as in top five. He was perhaps second best in the NL. Iglesias is clear-cut better than Archie Bradley.
Bradley himself should fetch a good return in a trade. The Reds gave up Josh Van Meter and Stuart Fairchild in the August 31 deal. Bradley hasn’t lost value since. The Reds should tender him an offer and shop him. Bradley is a better than average reliever and younger than Iglesias. He pitched well for the Reds in his few appearances after the trade (4 hits, 0 walks in 7.2 innings) in a set-up role. His contract will be attractive for a team looking for value in an established closer. Bradley would be a proven, affordable set-up guy for any of the big-stack teams.
In principle, the Reds should be shopping every player, every year. That means being willing to trade anyone if the return is right. Reds ownership has been far from open to that strategy in the past, tending to hold on to familiar players too long. See: Harvey, Matt; and Hamilton, Billy.
A word of caution about the market, though. A couple weeks ago, Cleveland declined a $10 million club option on its closer Brad Hand. Hand is the same age as Iglesias. Cleveland has a ready replacement for Hand. He isn’t as good as the Reds closer (Hand’s xFIP was 3.83 in 2020) but he’s in the neighborhood. Plus, Brad Hand is left-handed. Yet not only did Cleveland release him, but no team made a waiver claim on him. Now, Hand is a free agent. All thirty clubs passing on a great lefty reliever at $10 million for one year is an indication of an ultra-soft free agent market. And closer is the one position in recent years that has bucked that general trend.
That said, every team but Tampa Bay still thinks it needs a closer. Established ones are rare and therefore come with higher currency. The Reds have two. In their current situation, they should be wide open to moving one or both for younger, less expensive players.